5. Nassau County: Centre Street to Main Beach Park

The fifth entry of the Complete A1A journey begins at Fernandina Beach’s tourist center, Centre Street, just short of 27 miles from A1A’s northern terminus, Callahan. With so much to offer travelers, this blog entry focuses on just under two and a half miles.

Centre Street is the main hub of what is the Fernandina Beach Historic District, which consists of over 1,500 acres of Victorian-era architecture (a total of 50 blocks). An excellent overview of Amelia Island is provided by ameliaisland.com. A visit to the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau & Welcome Center, located at the intersection of Centre and Front streets, is also recommended.

You will instantly recognize the island’s friendly nature.

Entering Amelia Island on A1A, you are placed on South 8th Street, explained on Complete A1A’s fourth entry. A1A will turn eastward at the intersection of 8th Street onto Atlantic Avenue, which without stop gets you to Main Beach and the Atlantic Ocean in only a couple of minutes.

But for this stretch, give yourself at least a couple of days, especially when turning left at the intersection, where you enter Centre Street and its seven walkable blocks to Front Street and the Amelia River waterfront.

There much to see and do in Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island—the ONLY place in America where eight flags have flown, hence the name: Isle of Eight Flags (duh).

Let the superlatives fly!

Take for example, The Palace Saloon, Florida’s OLDEST continuously “operated drinking establishment.” It is recognized as the FIRST hard liquor bar to serve Coca-Cola, and the LAST bar to close in Florida just before prohibition.

And maybe, the saloon has the ONLY bartender to have served simultaneously as a city mayor. And just maybe, The Honorable Johnny Miller will be behind the bar to serve you a libation on your visit—go for its Pirate Punch and keep the neon-colored souvenir cup.

That’s three (or four) superlatives in one spot alone. There is more to come.

Take for another example, the Florida House Inn, just one block away from the Palace Saloon and just off Centre Street (South 3rd Street). Built in 1857, there are references that it is the OLDEST continuously operating inn in Florida, though Mount Dora’s Lakeside Inn makes the same claim. The dispute is most likely legit; the Florida House Inn did close in early 2010 but reopened under new ownership later that year. A deeper look into the inn’s history reveals some up and down times.

Much history surrounds the Florida House, from being built by David Levy Yulee (the builder of Florida’s FIRST east-west railroad from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key); to it housing Union soldiers during the Civil War; to it hosting America’s richest families (Vanderbilts, DuPonts, and Carnegies); and to having among its guests list: Ulysses S. Grant, Jose Marti, Henry Ford, Laurel and Hardy, and Mary Pickford; the inn surely maintains its charm of yesteryear.

The inn is also the home of the Mermaid Bar, a seasonally-opened spot famous for its Mermaid Slap and other prohibition-era specialties.

Next to the inn is the Green Turtle Tavern, where the ambience is truly Key West-style. Cheap drinks, and live music on the porch is a draw for visitors. On their “Taco Tuesday and Vinyl Records” nights, they serve up $2 Mexican beers.

If your palate calls for locally-brewed beer, enter A1A’s third brewery, Amelia Island Brewing Company, two blocks east of the Palace Saloon. Opened in 2016, the tavern serves southern food with its wide selection of microbrews; AIBC’s alley was added in 2020 with a focus on beer and light fare. The alley is worth a lookover—the murals are cool.

Want another choice for beer? Try Amelia Island Coffee, especially during their Friday night trivia, where their website advertises $12 beer buckets. A popular morning spot, expect to wait in line for coffee and array of breakfast offerings.

An excellent write-up, “Amelia Island Coffee fuels the community”, is provided by Dillon Bassie (September 22, 2020) for the Fernandina Beach Newsleader, the OLDEST weekly newspaper in Florida.

From Fernandina Beach: flipturn

Basse’s article shows how local businesses are cherished on the island. Small business dominates Centre Street; only the Hampton Inn and Suites between Front Street and Second Street is the exception.

By the way, Basse provides lead vocals and rhythm guitar for an up and coming indie band: flipturn. Check em out; you’ll be glad you did.

Along with beer, wine, coffee, and pastries, gourmet ice cream is also served at Amelia Island Coffee.

Speaking of which, you want a frozen treat? Plenty of other options avail themselves to visitors.

Try Island Time Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt, where they can concoct “thousands of combinations.” For $5, you can get a hefty portion of its Dole Whip—highly recommended. You will normally see a crowd outside Island Time, including their best friends—it is very dog friendly (as is all of Centre Street).

Shakes and floats are also on the menu at Tasty’s Fresh Burgers, with its Centre Street location housed in what was a Gulf service station; its owner, Chad Dougherty, who with his wife opened Tasty’s in December 2011, was influenced by his “Granny Jean,” who ran The Freezette, “Fernandina’s FIRST quintessential burger joint back in the early 1960’s.”

Nana Teresa’s Bake Shop, along with is baked goods and cakes, offers milk shakes and sundaes from its 1950’s-style soda fountain. Expect a line when visiting.

Fantastic Fudge is yet another spot that serves up ice cream but is widely recognized for its variety of other sweet offerings. Southern Living magazine has written about Fantastic Fudge, The Travel Channel has featured it, and movie star Andie McDowell “snacked at Fantastic Fudge one summer.”

And while gift stores might discourage you from coming inside with a messy ice cream cone, The Cinnamon Bear Country Store actually sells ice cream along with an array of souvenir t-shirts and other cool stuff. A slight correction to mentioning that only locally-owned establishments are found along Centre Street; this shop has locations in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, but it is a small enough chain to mention nevertheless.

Ice cream is so popular along Centre Street that Pippi Longstocking, in the movie The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, buys ice cream for a group of orphans, which leads to a food fight (during the food fight, mashed potatoes were used in place of ice cream).

The movie, by the way, was mostly filmed in Fernandina Beach, showing off Centre Street and nearby sites. Check out this YouTube video created by Mobile Instinct.

And since we are still talking ice cream, east of Centre Street, where Atlantic Avenue turns south for the FIRST time on the Complete A1A journey, is Putt-Putt Amelia Island, which “started in 1959 and is the LONGEST continually operating franchise of Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America.” You can get a ice cream cone there also while watching some serious action on one of its two, Par-36 courses.

The Fernandina Beach location is one of only two Putt-Putt golf courses in Florida; its is also the FIRST miniature golf course situated along A1A south.

So, why will you find a shrimping museum as part of a welcome center nearby? Another superlative—Fernandina is the BIRTHPLACE of the modern shrimping industry.

Located on the Amelia River waterfront one block south of Centre Street, is the Fernandina Beach Marine Welcome Center & Shrimping Museum , part of the Amelia Island Museum of History, which is itself three blocks south of Centre Street on South 3rd Street.

The latter is housed in what was the Nassau County Jail; you can actually enter one of its jail cells.

Superlative alert—the Amelia Island History Museum is Florida’s FIRST spoken (oral) history museum. Along with a wonderful display of exhibits, the museum offers a variety of walking tour options, including a ghost tour and a pub crawl, and programs such as their Third on Third speaker series every third Thursday (on 3rd Street). The museum’s website has a wonderful archive database for history buffs.

Key West has probably the most fascinating museum dedicated to treasure seekers, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. On a smaller scale, but still highly interesting, is The Maritime Museum of Amelia Island.

A guided tour is offered by an actual treasurer hunter associated with Amelia Research and Recovery, a corporate sponsor of the museum. Among the artifacts you will see are ship models, equipment used by treasure hunters, and items recovered from various shipwrecks. Among the items of interest are a 40-carat emerald embedded in a conch shell and a “husband killing dagger” made from a human femur (Ouch!)..

History abounds on Amelia Island, and it is clearly evident when visiting Amelia Island’s OLDEST indie bookstore, and the FIRST along A1A south, The Book Loft. When entering the store and turning to the left, you will see a large shelf of book titles representing Florida and local history, and a couple of shelves dedicated to Fernandina’s pirate history (you will not be able to escape Amelia Island’s piracy embrace).

The Book Loft has enjoyed its share of visiting celebrity writers:

“The store appeals to everyone – tourists, locals, historians, and children to name a few. Many celebrity authors have visited the store to share their books including John Grisham, Karen White, Dean Koontz, Dorothea Benton Frank, Steve Berry, Cassandra King,  Jacques Pepin, Jimmy Buffett, Charles Martin, and the late Pat Conroy.”

Years ago, during a visit to The Book Loft, I purchased Jimmy Buffett’s A Pirate Looks at Fifty from Bill Nelson, the then co-owner (He has since passed, but his wife Sue continues his legacy). He asked me if I was a Jimmy Buffett fan, of which I replied that I am a huge Jimmy Buffett fan—he then mentioned that JB was in the store just 15 minutes or so prior to my arrival.

Had to share that infamously memorable event in my life.

The Book Loft is one of my all-time favorite bookstores; we will discover more awesome indie bookstores along A1A.

Around Centre Street are historical markers revealing the island’s rich heritage. Of the 27 Florida Historical Markers found in Nassau County, nine are located within easy walking distance of Centre Street.

Superlative alert—On the corner of Centre and 6th streets is a marker for Memorial United Methodist Church, the OLDEST United Methodist congregation in Florida.

A marker at the intersection of Centre and Front streets, erected by the Fernandina Rose Garden Club, identifies that famed naturalist William Bartram visited the island in 1774. Another shows the island’s connection to the Revolutionary War. Both are only steps away from one of Fernandina Beach’s most beloved statues—Peg Leg Pete.

From the Fernandina Beach Main Street website about Peg Leg Pete’s 40th birthday:

“Originally carved from a single ten foot piece of live oak by artist Wayne Ervin, a community-wide contest to name the statue was won by the students of Emma Love Hardee Elementary. Officially named Peg Leg, the wooden sculpture has stood proudly as a symbol of fellowship in downtown Fernandina Beach since October 14, 1978. Pete, as Peg Leg became fondly known, is reported to be the single most photographed icon in Fernandina Beach, Florida.”

Led by the Fernandina Pirates Club, Pete was restored and unveiled on February 29, 2020. Club member Judie Mackle wrote a piece for the Fernandina Observer on February 25, 2020. Pete is a cherished part of the Fernandina community, and the club has made sure that Pete stays around for future generations.

Of course, there are other pirate statues in Fernandina Beach (and more will be found along A1A). A peg-legged pirate welcomes you to the Palace Saloon (read this poem written by Tim Corsini, which appeared in the Fernandina Observer on JUne 30, 2018).

Another pirate statue can be found at Amelia Island’s OLDEST gift shop, Ship’s Lantern; this is probably Centre Street’s most unique shop, offering shoppers much in the way of nautical souvenirs, especially shark teeth (the northern end of Amelia Island is referred to as a haven for shark teeth hunters, by the way).

The Marina Restaurant, the island’s OLDEST restaurant, has its share of statues, including a pirate looking over the dining area from the back. Nothing fancy about this eatery, but the home-style menu offers comfort food in a true to form Fernandina-like atmosphere.

As Centre Street meets Front Street, the Amelia River waterfront, known as Fernandina Harbor Marina, greets you with a welcome sight—free parking. However, the lot fills up early, so travelers not staying at the Hampton Inn, Florida House Inn, or other nearby bed and breakfast inns (check out the Amelia Schoolhouse Inn) should arrive early, especially during the weekend.

The marina offers several fishing charter options located at the marina: The Angler’s Mark, AC Charters, and Amelia Island Time Charter are three mentioned on Google maps; there are many more options listed on the Fishing Booker website.

Popular among visitors is Amelia River Cruises, which offers several cruise options, including its Cumberland Island Tour (more information on this cruise from a previous blog, “A Saturday on A1A: Jacksonville to Fernandina Beach,” can be found here).

A couple of unique options for getting out on the water are Backwater Cat Adventure and Amelia River Cycle.

A popular dining option at the harbor is Brett’s Waterway Cafe; next to it is another gift shop, Front & Center.

Along Centre Street are plenty of places to eat and to buy that souvenir t-shirt.

At the Salty Pelican, you can kill two… well, never mind. One of the most popular places to eat and drink around Centre Street, the Salty Pelican has a wide selection, including its seafood pot pie. There is plenty on the menu for those that stray away from the sea food-wise, as well as a full bar and an excellent selection of local brews.

What tends to draw my attention is a restaurant name’s coolness factor; on Amelia island, Salty Pelican wins the prize. Their t-shirts, though not too elaborate in design, is a popular sell.

It’s all in the name.

Runner-up? The Happy Tomato Cafe. The food here is good (sandwiches are amazing), the prices are reasonable, and the courtyard is an oasis. What’s missing? The Happy Tomato t-shirt does not exist.

There are a variety of souvenir shops along Centre Street that sell Amelia Island-logo apparel. Already mentioned is the Cinnamon Bear Country Store; others include Harbor Wear, Amelia Island Clothing and Gifts, Out of Hands, and Sea Jade. Centre Street also offers upscale (but not too upscale) shopping—again all local.

In the fourth entry of Complete A1A, four antique shops are mentioned. Along Centre Street are two more: Eight Flags Antique Market and Trailer Park Collectables. Both are considerably large, and both have a large selection of antiques that reflect the coastal lifestyle so typical of Florida. Both are definitely worth a roam.

With all the shopping and dining found along Centre Street, business must go on for locals. The Historic Nassau County Courthouse (built in 1898) and the United States Post Office building (1911) serves its citizens, though the post office building has gone through some tumultuous times in recent years. A November 21, 2013 article from the Florida Times-Union (“Fernandina Post Office closure on hold” by Dan Scanlan) sheds light on the building’s needed preservation efforts.

In 1989, both buildings were listed in A Guide to Florida’s Historic Architecture, published by the University of Florida Press.

A last look at Centre Street before venturing eastward belongs to the Villa Villekulla Neighborhood Toy Store. On a Saturday, May 1, visit to Centre Street, we noticed art students, from Fernandina Beach High School (Go Pirates!), window painting shrimp art at businesses throughout Centre Street.

At the toy store, we met up with Raven Moonshadow Drakus, a high school senior. Before handing us a business card for a mural painting business she plans to start, she explained that a week prior to the Isle of Eight Flags Festival, held every first weekend in May, as a tradition, students decorate Centre Street with these paintings. This year, as the festival was cancelled due to Covid-19, their visual arts teacher, Joy Keith, wanted to continue the tradition.

We met up with Ms. Keith as she was decorating the Cinnamon Bear Country Store windows.

“We wanted to continue this tradition for the small businesses on Centre Street,” said Ms. Keith. “And since the festival is cancelled this year, we are sort of the main attraction. We wanted to support our community and bring smiles to our visitors.”

And that they did.

From Villa Villekula Neighborhood Toy Store, we leave Centre Street toward Main Beach, but not before checking out three iconic structures in Fernandina Beach—the actual Villa Villekula on the island: the Pippi Longstocking House; the Amelia Island Lighthouse; and Fort Clinch.

The movie has already been mentioned, but now it is time to focus on the house. To get there, turn left off A1A/Atlantic Avenue onto North 14th Street. Less than two miles, you turn left onto White Street, then park along one of side streets of Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park, the SMALLEST Florida state park.

The house, also known as the Captain’s House, was originally built in 1888. It was recently on the market for around $750,000 (see video above). While its connection to the movie makes it one of Amelia Island’s top photo ops, its location—Old Town—deserves much attention.

Fernandina Plaza is the site of what was Fort San Carlos, built in 1816 to defend the Spanish colonial town. Now just a one block area on the Amelia Island waterfront, it is surrounded by the Captain’s House and other, beautiful Victorian-era homes. The grassy grounds are bare, but the notorious history of this site, including its actions of piracy and smuggling, and especially its connection to the slave trade, makes this a place for reflection.

Superlative alert—from Amelia Island Living’s write-up, “Historic Old Town Fernandina.”

“Old Town Fernandina is a community of ‘peonia’ lots platted by the Spanish in 1811. Old Town is unique as the ONLY Spanish town in Florida with the original site plat remaining. It’s also the very LAST Spanish city platted in the Western Hemisphere.

The plaza, with its high bluff along the river, was a Timucuan settlement thousands of years prior to the arrival of European colonists. Archaeologists have discovered artifacts over 4,000 years old. The story of the Timucua will be shared throughout much of the Buccaneer Trail portion of A!A (Callahan to Daytona Beach). Once leaving Nassau County and entering Duval County, you will arrive at the Timucuan Ecological & Cultural Preserve, a combination of local, state, and national parks located within 46,000 acres of the LARGEST city in area within the contiguous 48, Jacksonville.

Driving on North 14th Street to and from Old Town, you will pass one of Florida’s oldest and most beautiful cemeteries, Bosque Bello.

The cemetery was established by the Spanish in 1798; its oldest identifiable grave is dated in the year 1813.

And yes, it is considered to be haunted. Try, if you dare, Amelia Island Ghost Tours. From its website:

Be sure to bring your camera.  Once the tour starts there
is paranormal activity photographed almost every night.

Back on Atlantic Avenue/A1A, we head to the Amelia Island Lighthouse, which built in 1838 makes it the OLDEST in Florida. It is the FIRST lighthouse to be seen along A1A. Tours are limited to the first and third Wednesdays each month; on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., visitors may access the lighthouse grounds. Visitors may not climb this lighthouse (the first lighthouse climb along A1A is offered in St. Augustine—read my blog on how to see five lighthouses in one day here), and there are limited opportunities to get up close.

However, a distant but spectacular view is provided at our last stop on this section of A1A—Fort Clinch State Park, the FIRST state park off A1A.

Upon entering the park, you will drive along a gorgeous canopy road through maritime hammocks that brings you to Egan’s Creek Overlook, where you can view the lighthouse as it stands across Egan’s Creek and the tidal marshes.

This is just one of the many experiences you can have at Fort Clinch. For history and architectural buffs, exploring the fort is a must. For those that dabble with photography. Fort Clinch is a haven full of photo ops.

Children of all ages will enjoy exploring the various paths and tunnels of the fort; its pentagon-shaped design consists of almost five million bricks. Let the kids roam and play, but take caution, especially when roaming the upper section where the cannons are located on a windy day.

For those doing the Complete A1A journey, Fort Clinch, the first state park, and Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, home of another brick fortification and the LAST state park on the journey, brackets the A1A adventure.

Check out Chad Gallivanter;s YouTube video for a more in-depth look at the fort.

Along with the fort, there is a list of things to do that could take a full day, or couple if you are lucky enough to get a campsite (reservations should be made well in advance). The park is one of the stops on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail; over 100 bird species, along with other wildlife (alligators, armadillos, deer, raccoons, snakes, and maybe a bobcat) may be seen. Several miles are available for hiking and mountain biking, and the park is a haven for shell-seekers and shark teeth hunters.

Or you may purchase shark teeth from the vending machine at the fort’s gift shop.

Until it was severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Fort Clinch was the home of Florida’s LONGEST fishing pier (2,409 feet in length). Still, surf fishing is a popular activity. From the state park’s website:

“Depending on the season, the most popular fish caught within the park are redfish, black drum, whiting, flounder, mullet, sheepshead, sea trout and an occasional grouper. Popular bait choices include dead or live shrimp, mud minnows, finger mullet and squid, along with a variety of lures. A small variety of fishing tackle and bait is available for purchase at the visitor center.”

Before signing off on this blog, I want to recommend the movie Sunshine State, an indie film directed by John Sayles and featuring a star-studded cast. The movie, filmed almost entirely on Amelia Island, reflects the nature not only of the island, but of the whole of A1A. It addresses the need for balance between land development and preservation, as well as paralleling the lives of Marly Temple (Edie Falco) and Desiree Stokes Perry (Angela Bassett), one white and one black.

Amelia Island plays the role of Plantation Island, Fernandina Beach plays the role of Delrona Beach, and American Beach (the focus of the sixth entry of Complete A1A) plays the role of Lincoln Beach, an African American community.

So, as you leave Fort Clinch, you make a left turn, then just before the Main Beach parking lot, make an immediate right…

… and for the FIRST time, it’s southward on A1A.

But not before you get in 18 holes.

Happy travelling!

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